Almost 46 years ago to the date, Bill Baird, a reproductive rights activist, concluded his lecture at Boston University by giving contraceptive foam to a woman in attendance. Shortly after, he was arrested.
Baird had broken Massachusetts’ “Crimes Against Chastity, Decency and Good Order” law that prohibited unmarried persons from receiving contraception. It was one of eight arrests Baird incurred during his lifetime in his fight for legal contraception, and led to Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Supreme Court case that, on March 22, 1972, legalized birth control for all persons, regardless of marital status.
It sounds strange to a generation of millennials who grew up with sex-ed classes as early as elementary school, shows like Girls that discuss at length the subjects of sex, contraception, and abortion, and entire music, film, and advertising industries that cater to this very subject. Today, sex seems anything but taboo.
In 1873, the U.S. became the first Western nation to criminalize birth control when Congress passed the Comstock Act, a series of antiobsenity laws that prohibited the dissemination of birth control information and services.
The need for birth control had not, however, arisen with the establishment of the U.S. government. Methods of contraception had been developing for thousands of years, and its prohibition in 1873 did not eliminate pre and extramarital sex. Rather, it made it more dangerous.
During the century in which birth control was outlawed for unmarried persons, methods of contraception regressed as men and women searched for legal alternatives. According to Women’s Health, between the 1920s and 1960s, the most popular form of birth control was Lysol disinfectant, a product that was advertised under the veil of “feminine hygiene,” but not only did not work as a contraceptive, but led to burns, inflammation, and in severe cases, death.
Baird himself was inspired to dedicate his life to women’s reproductive rights when he witnessed an unmarried mother of eight die at a hospital in Harlem after attempting to conduct an abortion on herself. At the time, the 29-year-old had no right to contraception, and was one of estimated thousands of women who died each year from illegal abortions.
The invention of birth control pill in 1960 is still cited as a symbol of sexual revolution and women’s liberation. With control over their bodies, contraception empowered women, and the men with whom they had relationships. By 1965, 6.5 million women were on the pill, and today around 100 million women around the world use oral contraception alone.
There is no doubt that we’ve come a long way in the field of contraception, but today, the dialogue has changed. With the recent election of Pope Francis, the world is turning once again to the face of the Catholic Church, one of the biggest players in today’s discussion of birth control. While this year’s election hotly debated the topic of abortion and the Affordable Care Act, perhaps a more serious look at the distribution of birth control and sex education to targeted groups across the country might shift the focus to more fundamental issues. The dialogue is changing, but it’s far from over.